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Dietrich Bonhoeffer-Christian Theologian, Pastor and Seeker.

Updated on August 23, 2017
John Everette profile image

Being a Christian and history buff I long wanted to learn more about this Christian pastor who lived and worked in Nazis Germany for peace

Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Dietrich Bonhoeffer | Source

Early Life

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Christian pastor who would have been relatively content being a pastor and theologian but he was living in a time and in a country where the beliefs of Christians and Christian churches were being challenged by Hitler’s Nazis Regime. Dietrich’s theological concerns focused on what it truly meant to be a Christian and how a Christian was to live, especially during a time and in a country that was so filled with chaos and suffering as his was.

Dietrich Bonehoeffer was born with his sister Sabine on February 4, 1906 in Breslau, Germany (present day known as Wroclau and located in Poland). He would go on to spend most of his life questioning himself, his beliefs and many of his decisions. These beliefs and decisions, themselves not easily arrived at. One decision must have been easily arrived at for in 1920, at the age 14, he announced to his family his intention to become a pastor, which surprised the family. The news came as surprise mainly because the family was not particularly religious though his mother’s father, grandfather, and uncles were pastors. Also, his mother made sure that her kids had some religious knowledge in that she conducted Protestant Sunday school for them. It probably did not come to too much of a surprise to his sister Sabine with whom he was in the custom of having talks with about eternity and the meaning of eternal life.

In 1912 Bonhoeffer’s family moved to a big house in a part of Berlin that was popular among capital’s upper class because his father accepted the position of head of neurology and psychiatry at Charite, Berlin’s principle hospital. Though they lived among the upper class, the family was mindful of those less fortunate for his mother insisted on homeschooling her eight children (4 boys and 4 girls) until they were seven or eight. All eight of them excelled in their studies and were involved in sports as well as music.

When the Great War began, the Bonhoeffers like most Germans, especially the elite clergy and professionals, welcomed the war as they tended to see the war as a challenge to their nation and its materialism. Then as the war stretched on over three years, and the horrors of that war began coming clear, their nationalistic support for the war changed. This was especially true for the Bonhoeffers the war hit home for them. In 1917 their two oldest sons (Karl-Fredrick and Walter) enlisted in the infantry in 1917. In April of 1918 Walter died of his wounds which greatly affected the family. Then in October Karl-Fredrick was wounded.

The Bonhoeffers never became very political but after World War I they, particularly the patriarch psychiatrys Dr.Karl Bonheffer, became sensitive in recognizing the psychopathic leaders that were finding their way into positions of power most notably Adolf Hitler.

Quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer | Source

Dietrich's religious education

In 1923 Dietrich attended Turbingen University to pursue his aim to be a pastor. Along with his education at the university he received two weeks of military training under Reichwehr officers in the event strikes or uprisings arouse in the area.

After leaving Turbingen in 1924 he and his brother Klaus took a trip to Rome, a trip that had an impact on Dietrich because he found such energy in the Catholic culture he saw, an energy that was lacking in the Protestant church in Germany. Another thing he experienced as he attended mass at a cloister was “worship in the true sense.” This gave him an understanding of “the concept of church.”

From his trip through Italy with his brother, Dietrich entered Berlin University. Berlin University was long known for his religious educators who often held controversial views at looking at Christian scripture that they all scrutinized. One educator looked at scripture through the view point of Greek philosophy. Another through the influences of ideas of reason and experience brought in by the Enlightenmnet. Another stressed the importance of studying Christianity in the context of religious and cultural history. The educator who had the greatest influence on Dietrich was Karl Barth who argued that spiritual certainty sought by a struggling believer was a true religious experience and that this was not anchored in the person but the majesty of God.

At the age of 23, in 1927, Dietrich was prepared for ordination except the fact that in order to be ordained he had to be 25 years of age. As a result he was assigned to pastor a German church in Barcelona, Spain for one year. Once his year in Barcelona was finished he went to teach at Berlin University for about two years.

In 1930 he received a fellowship to attend the Union Theological Seminary in New York city. Though he was impressed by the people at the Seminary and how they were addressing the political, social, and moral consequences of the Great Depression. He respected the emphasis on ethics and was also impressed at the people at the Seminary who were willing to live and work among the disadvantaged. He was more affected by the sermons at a Black Baptist Church-the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem than he was by the renown theological liberals at the Seminary. Also, he once again found a part of the church, at the Black Baptist Church, that seemed more alive than the religious institutions that existed in Germany. Despite all this, Dietrich was just as unsure of himself and where he was going when he left New York as when he first arrived.

When he returned to Germany Dietrich had not decided what to do with all his learning and how to relate it to his theological and biblical studies. Above all he was unsure of what it genuially meant to practice the Christian faith. That is why, after visiting his brother Karl-Fredrick who was not only the head of his own scientific institute, but was a new father, he sought out Barth.

Through Barth Dietrich hoped to learn more about the problem of ethics. Barth however felt that the question of ethics “secondary to and lesser than [the] ultimate question of what Christian life rested on.” This concept seemed to resonate with Dietrich for he felt the urgent sense that in the “chaos that existed in Germany, pastors, more clearly than ever, needed to demonstrate on what basis they ministered to the people and that religious instruction needed to include ethical commands about those things that were truly valuable and meaningful in the sinful, suffering world that existed at the time.

Quote from Bonehoeffer
Quote from Bonehoeffer | Source

Dietrich's opposition to Nazification of Religion in Germany

1933 proved to be a busy year for Dietrich. Not only did he and his family see the dangers in Germany that Adolf Hitler presented he gave a lecture over the radio directed at the younger generation in Germany who were already becoming involved in youth clubs. The lecture was given two days after Hitler became Chancellor:

“People and especially youth will feel the need to give a leader authority over them as long as they do not feel themselves to be mature, strong, responsible enough to themselves fulfill the demands placed in this authority. This leader will have to be responsibility aware of this clear restriction on authority…if the leader tries to become the idol the led one looking for-something the led always hope from their leader-them the image of the leader shifts to one of a misleader.”

In other words this leader becomes the great seducer.

The great seducer is exactly what Hitler slowly revealed himself to be as he focused on the Protestant Church in Germany. He did this through his skillful use of Christian and religious language, as well as other means to give the impression that he and the Church were fighting the same fight, and that the church would have influence in his new system. He did this at the same time he and his Nazi Party declared a state of emergency after the fire at the Reichstag, thereby restricting civil liberties. Then the Enabling Acts were enacted that gave Hitler unlimited legislative power.

At the same time a sector of the Protestant church-The German Christian Movement founded in 1932-was already at work bringing together the Protestant Church and National Socialism. As a result there grew a desire for the predominant Protestant Church to work for a unified church regulated by the Fuhrer. That is until people became aware of the Aryan paragraph which limited the gospel through German (human) law.

The paragraph set off debate among pastors. On the one hand there were those who welcomed such regulation. Then there was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. From the days of Martin Luther and the Reformation the position of the Protestant Church was that the church should stay out of state affairs. To Dietrich, as a result of his theological and biblical studies as well as coming in contact with other religions, came to believe that the state needed to check with the church as to whether or not their actions were fulfilling its duty and responsibility justly and that the church had to ask the state if these actions corresponded to its duty to preserve justice and order. He also believed that Christians had a responsibility to help those who became victims of state actions.

Later in the year Dietrich, along with friends including Karl Barth founded the Pastor’s Emergency League to assist pastors who could no longer support themselves due to the Aryan paragraph. At the same time Dietrich began and his friends began thinking of creating the Confessing Church.

As usual Dietrich soon found himself overwhelmed by the decisions he had made and the responsibilities that he had brought upon himself to the point that he was questioning his abilities and the dogma he was following. He soon found himself desiring a pastorate somewhere where he could work on his theological and biblical studies in peace. To this end he accepted a pastorate at a German church in England. However, no sooner than he arrived in England that he found himself keeping up with Germany’s march to totalitarian state with people being dismissed from their posts, people disappearing into concentration camps, books burned in front of universities, the press muzzled, and churches torn apart as he found himself busy with his pastorate duties of preaching and helping German emigrants. He also found himself involved in the Confessing Church in that he was trying to gain international recognition of it as it was being created in Germany through the work of many who, like Dietrich, were in opposition to The German Christian Church and its alliance with the Nazi regime. In the process he found new friends and supporters among Scandinavian and Swiss clerics, most notably George Bell the bishop of Chichester and chairman of the ecumenical Council on Life and Work. Finally and most importantly he did manage to focus his studies on the Sermon on the Mount which greatly deepened and strengthened him and his believes.

In 1934 he returned to Berlin and the battle against the German Church which Barth had urged him to do back when he left Germany to spend some time as a pastor in England. It was in April of that year that the Confessing Church was born. It was immediately welcomed by ecumenical churchmen in England, Scandinavia, and the United States as “the lawful Evangelical Church in Germany.” It would stand in contrast to German Christian “false teaching and false doctrine.” Dietrich was invited to direct the newly founded preachers’ seminary for the Confessing Church which eventually found its home on the Finkenwald estate in the province of Pomerania.

Almost as soon as it was founded, the Confessing Church came under fire from the Nazi regime. This was due to the fact that the Confessing Church was under the supervision of the Old Prussian Union Church, and their financial office was under strict control of the Interior Ministry. Not only that there was a Ministry of Church Affairs whose job it was that all church factions worked together. This did not sit well with Dietrich as he rejected any idea of the Confessing Church either working with or compromising with the state. At the same time many members of the Confessing Church, often siting Lutheran teaching about the interaction of church and state, went to work in newly created state institutions. More and more Dietrich was finding himself a lone voice in opposition to the church under the rule of the state.

Dietrich changes focus of his resistance

In 1935 the Ministry of Church Affairs banned the Confessing Church from filling pastorates, announcing activities, taking collections, and ordaining pastors. In effect the Nazi regime was closing the church down. However, it was not until 1937 as Heinrich Himmler was ordering the arrests of Protestant and Catholic pastors that he ordered that the seminary for the Confessing Church in Finkenwald be closed. After the seminary was closed Dietrich found ways to not only keep in touch with those he had already taught but continue pastoring them and other pastors.

It was also in 1935 that Dietrich became aware that there was a good chance of him being drafted just as many members of the Confessing Church had already been drafted. For him this was not an option, neither was being classified as a conscious objector for in Nazi Germany this automatically carried a death sentence. The possibility of being drafted grew more real soon after the Wehrmacht marched into Prague in 1939.

It was not only the idea of being drafted that caused Dietrich to want to get away from Germany, but everything that was going on with the Confessing Church. As a result his friends and family sought ways for him to evade the draft. It started with his father who persuaded the army to give Dietrich one year leave. In the meantime Dietrich’s brother-in-law Hans Dohnanyi was able to have Dietrich assigned to the overseas desk of Military Intelligence in Munich. This exempted Dietrich from active military service, in essence Dietrich was now indespensible as a civilian worker for the war effort. Also he was able to teach a summer session at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Again, no sooner that he arrived in America he felt drawn back to Germany and all his obligations and loyalties there: himself, his family, his church, and his country. “How could he choose peace and comfort in alien land while his own on the brink of war.” He went on to write a friend-“I must live through this difficult period of our national history with the Christian people of Germany, I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after this war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people… Christians in Germany are going to face terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of the nation in order that Christian civilization may survive, or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying our civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose, but I cannot make this choice in security.”

quote from Dietrich
quote from Dietrich | Source

Resistor and conspirator

It was this idea of being involved in the reconstruction of Germany that Dietrich took back with him to Germany for her had already been banned from pastoring pastors of the now nearly non-existent Confessing Church. He had been banned from public speaking for it was seen as “subverting the people.” In that he spoke of pacifism. He had also been banned from writing which he largely disregarded because his theological studies had always played a great part of his life.

Now that he was back in Germany he became involved not only in helping plan the reconstruction of Germany after the war but helping to end the war thanks in great part to his brother-in-law who in making him an indispensable civilian in the war effort presumably to use his contacts in Allied countries to help gather information was in fact being used as a means of conveying messages to his contacts in the Allied countries of a vast network of resistors in Germany who were not only interested in bringing the war to an end, but had plans for a new government in Germany that was willing to work with them in return for Germany receiving better treatment than what they received as a result of the Versailles Treaty that had brought an end to World War I, and helped lay the basis for World War II.


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